cropped-hpim1144.jpgWhat if I said “What if?” to every suggestion you make to do something? How would this response sit with you, when it is repeated, and repeated, and repeated?

Most of us have met a ‘what if?er’. Underpinning his or her mantra of questioning everything is probably a personal history of personal failure, or anxiety about change, or suspicions around being deceived, and so forth. From something as simple as saying “Let’s go to a ball-game”, or “Would you like to invest in Acme Corp stock?”, or “Do you want to drive to Florida, or fly?”. All will be met with “Well, what if…..”, leaving your hopes dashed once again. And running through all the possible reasons it won’t work with that person, is, to say the least, disheartening. It also becomes boring, causing you to avoid that person in the future.

People who are “What if?ers” end up narrowing their real life world to such an extent, often without knowing it, that by default they become reclusive or certainly socially ignored. Excuses are given not to take almost any action that would probably benefit them, leading to an extreme minimalist existence. So they end up in a virtual ‘bubble’ wrapped in a veneer of self-denial and resentment to the outside world.

Persons with high anxiety project this syndrome. Fears experienced early in life have remained embedded in their psyche, and are reinforced by any negative social experiences. Two strategies to eliminate or reduce the What Ifer’s tendencies are: 1. encourage and guide them into new experiences in which a positive outcome is assured, and repeat the process; and 2. give them responsibilities, initially as a favour to you. My work with anxious people over 8 years has shown these methods work. Social phobia (crowds, groups, public speaking, classrooms, etc.) is particularly reduced, then specific phobias (bugs, heights, elevators, flying, etc.) are also lessened in severity. ‘Paced reintegration’ to an experience that involves a period of step-by-step immersion, is another method. For example, persons who fear flying can have their phobia diminished by a) taking them to a parked aircraft and letting them walk around it, as you explain all its safety features, b) getting them to stand at the doorway and look inside, c) going inside the parked aircraft with them, c) having them sit in a set while the engine starts up, all the while leaving the door open, d) having the pilot taxi them around the tarmac without going on the runway, e) travelling down the runway with them but not taking off, and e) taking off and perform a short circuit flight back to the airport. Safety statistics of flying over say, driving a car, is a resource they can be shown as well. This example of slow immersion can be applied to many other ‘what if’ circumstances. The objective is to reduce the irrational fear by slow exposure to the negative stimulus. It works most of the time. Positive reinforcement provided along the way by a caring, compassionate and encouraging friend is key.

Group therapy (cognitive therapy) should be used as an adjunct technique, if possible, to ‘break the bubble’ of fear.